Extraordinary number of proverbial sayings




by A. B. ELLIS




THE Yorubas have an extraordinary number of proverbial sayings, and regard a knowledge of them as a proof of great wisdom, whence the saying, “A counsellor who understands proverbs soon sets matters right.” They are in constant use, and another saying runs, “A proverb is the horse of conversation. When the conversation droops a proverb revives it. Proverbs and conversation follow each other.” Several of the proverbs given in the volume on the Ewe-speaking peoples are known to and used by the Yoruba-speaking peoples; but they have hundreds of others which appear to be peculiar to themselves, and from these the following are taken as examples:–

  1. Secrets should never be told to a tattler.
  2. What is not wished to be known is done in secret.
  3. He who has done something in secret, and sees people talking together, thinks they are talking of his action.
  4. A whisperer looks suspiciously at the forest when he hears a noise, but the forest does not tell tales.
  5. Rags make up a pad.
  6. Continual sweepings make a dust-heap.
  7. Boasting is not courage.
  8. He who boasts much cannot do much.
  9. Much gesticulation does not prove courage.
  10. It is easy to cut to pieces a dead elephant.
  11. “1 nearly killed the bird.” No one can eat nearly in a stew.
  12. A hog that has wallowed in the mud seeks a clean person to rub against.
  13. A man in a white cloth is never looked for in the palm-oil market.
  14. The cross-roads do not fear sacrifices.
  15. The sieve never sifts meal by itself.
  16. Disobedience will drink water with his hands tied up.
  17. Disobedience is the father of insolence.
  18. Calamity has no voice; suffering cannot speak to tell who is really in distress.
  19. He who owns the inner square of the house is the master of the outer.
  20. Peace is the father of friendship.
  21. Strife never begets a gentle child.
  22. He who forgives ends the quarrel.
  23. A sharp word is as tough as a bow-string. A sharp word cannot be cured, but a wound may.
  24. A peacemaker often receives blows.
  25. There is no medicine against old age.
  26. A man with a cough can never conceal himself.
  27. Full-belly child says to hungry-belly child, “Keep good heart.”
  28. A jealous woman has no flesh upon her breast, for however much she may feed upon jealousy, she will never be satisfied.
  29. Houses that are not adjacent do not readily catch fire.
  30. Do not attempt what you cannot bring to a good end.
  31. Each coloured cloth has its name.
  32. He who marries a beauty marries trouble.
  33. A man of the town knows nothing about farming, or the seasons for planting, yet the yam he buys must always be large.
  34. A witch kills but never inherits.
  35. Unless the tree falls you will never be able to reach the branches.
  36. Another’s eye is not like one’s own.
  37. The bite of the sand-fly is not so bad as poverty.
  38. Poverty destroys a man’s reputation.
  39. A poor man has no relations.
  40. Poverty never visits a poor man without visiting his children also.
  41. A man may be born to a fortune, but wisdom only comes with length of days.
  42. People think that the poor are not so wise as the rich, for if a man be wise, why is he poor?
  43. The appearance of the wise differs from that of the fool.
  44. The labourer is always in the sun, the plantation-owner always in the shade.
  45. A lazy man looks for light employment.
  46. Laziness lends assistance to fatigue.
  47. He who annoys another only teaches him to strengthen himself.
  48. He who waits for a chance will have to wait for a year.
  49. He who knows a matter beforehand confuses the liar.
  50. Time may be very long but a lie will not go to forgetfulness.
  51. A lie costs nothing to a liar.
  52. To be trodden upon here, to be trodden upon there, is the fate of the palm-kernel lying in the, road.
  53. The sole of the foot is exposed to all the dirt of the road.
  54. Consideration is the senior, calculation the junior, and wisdom the third-born.
  55. An obstinate man soon falls into disgrace.
  56. Inquiry saves a man from making mistakes. He who makes no inquiry gets himself into trouble.
  57. Though a man may miss other things, he never misses his mouth.
  58. Not to aid one in distress is to kill him in your heart.
  59. Charity is the father of sacrifice.
  60. Covetousness is the father of disease.
  61. A white cloth and a stain never agree.
  62. Thorns do not agree with the foot.
  63. The stream may dry up, but the watercourse still keeps its name.
  64. When water is poured on the head it finds its way down to the feet.
  65. A gift is a gift, and a purchase is a purchase; so no one will thank you for saying “I sold it to you very cheap.”
  66. Hawks go away for the nesting-season, and fools think they have gone away for ever.
  67. Ashes fly back in the face of him who throws them.
  68. It is the path of the needle that the thread is accustomed to follow.
  69. If a matter be dark, dive to the bottom.
  70. He who is pierced with a thorn must limp off to him who has a knife.
  71. Every man’s character is good in his own eyes.
  72. Wherever a man goes to dwell, his character goes with him.
  73. The white ant may well admire the bird, for it loses its wings only after only one day.
  74. Gently! gently! still hurts the snail.
  75. A bribe blinds the judge’s eyes, for bribes never speak the truth.
  76. A witness speaks the truth; a witness is not a partisan.
  77. A tick having fixed itself on the mouth of a jackal, a fowl was asked to take it off; but the fowl knew that she was food for the jackal just as the tick was for her.
  78. Gossip is unbecoming in an elder.
  79. The younger should not thrust himself into the seat of the elders.
  80. The young cannot teach the elders traditions.
  81. As a calabash receives the sediment of the water, so must an elder exercise forbearance.
  82. A man does not run among thorns for nothing. Either he is pursuing a snake or a snake is pursuing him.
  83. A thing thrown forward will surely be overtaken, and a thing put in the ground will be there to be dug up; but if nothing has been thrown forward, what shall be overtaken? and if nothing has been buried, what shall be dug up?
  84. The name given to a child becomes natural to it.
  85. Gold should be sold to him who knows its value.
  86. Time is longer than a rope.
  87. The dawn does not come twice to wake a man.
  88. If clothes remain long in the bag they rot.
  89. The bat hangs with his head down, watching the actions of the birds.
  90. A small bed will not hold two persons.
  91. The elephant makes a dust and the buffalo makes a dust, but the dust of the buffalo is lost in that of the elephant.
  92. A large morsel chokes a child.
  93. He who cannot lift an ant, and yet tries to lift an elephant, will find out his folly.
  94. He who tries to shake the trunk of a tree only shakes himself.
  95. The world is the ocean and mankind is the lagoon. However well a man can swim he
  96. As the yam-flour was once a soft unripe yam, so was the slave once a child in his father’s house.
  97. Birth does not differ from birth; as the free man was born so was the slave.
  98. A hunchback is never asked to stand up straight.
  99. He who has only an eyebrow for a bow can never kill an animal.
  100. You cannot kill game by looking at it.
  101. The glutton, having eaten his fill, then calls his companions to come also.
  102. If you are not able to build a house at once, you first build a shed.
  103. If one is carrying water, and it gets spilt, so long as the calabash is not broken one can still get more.
  104. He runs away from the sword and hides himself in the scabbard.
  105. The sword shows no respect for its maker.
  106. No one should ask the fish what takes place on the land, nor should the rat be asked what takes place in the water.
  107. A large cock does not allow a small one to crow.
  108. A rock is the father of stones.
  109. Two rams cannot drink out of the same calabash.
  110. No one will throw away antelope-venison to pick up squirrel-meat.
  111. When the spider intends to attack you it encircles you with its web.
  112. A large cock, crowing in the middle of the night, settles the dispute (as to what the time is).
  113. A lame man said the load on his head was not properly balanced, and was told “Its unevenness began from the ground” (i.e., from his lame leg).
  114. When the bush is on fire the pigeon leaves the grass; when the fire is extinguished everyone returns home.
  115. Self-conceit deprives the wasp of honey.
  116. When the man on the stilts falls, another hand gets possession of the sticks.
  117. If you send no one to the market the market will send no one to you.
  118. There is no tallness among pigeons; they are all dwarfs.
  119. You cannot shave a man’s head in his absence.
  120. A mouth not keeping shut, and lips not keeping close, bring trouble to the jaws.
  121. A chicken having been delivered from death (i.e., from the hawk) by being shut up, complained because it was not allowed to feed openly on the dust-heap.
  122. The dog that is known to be very swift is the one chosen to catch the hare.
  123. If the dog has his master behind him he will not be afraid of the baboon.
  124. Working in competition quickens the hands.
  125. An accident is not like a result that is foreseen.
  126. If a man powerful in authority should ill-treat you, smile at him.
  127. He who claps hands for a fool to dance is no better than the fool.
  128. Everything has a price, but who can put a price on blood?
  129. A fugitive does not stop to pick the thorns from his foot, neither does he make choice of his sauce.
  130. Never take hold of a man who has a drawn knife in his hand.
  131. By labour comes wealth.
  132. A knife cannot be so sharp as to sharpen its own handle.
  133. Joy has a small body.
  134. Number one always precedes number two.
  135. He who waits to see a crab wink will tarry long upon the shore.
  136. The butterfly that brushes against thorns will tear its wings.
  137. That which a child likes never injures its stomach.
  138. Quick loving a woman means quick not loving a woman.

(“Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”)

  1. One cannot show darkness by, pointing it out.
  2. The greater covers the less.
  3. Ropes are entangled when goats are tied to the same post.
  4. Without bad news there is no sadness of heart.
  5. The dove would not eat the ground-nuts, or the crow the white beans.

(“One man’s food is another man’s poison,”)

  1. Health is the stepping-stone to wealth.

Many of the proverbial sayings run in couplets, and resemble in construction some of those found in the Hebrew Book of Proverbs, the object being to establish an antithesis between two consecutive lines, in which noun is made to answer to noun, and verb to verb. For instance, compare:–

The simple inherit folly,
But the prudent are crowned with knowledge.

(Proverbs xiv. 18).

A gracious woman retaineth honour,
And strong men retain riches.

(Proverbs xi. 16.)

with the following Yoruba aphorisms:–

  1. Ordinary people are as common as grass,
    But good people are dearer than the eye.
  2. A matter dealt with gently is sure to prosper,
    But a matter dealt with violently causes vexation.
  3. Familiarity induces contempt,
    But distance secures respect.
  4. The public assembly belongs to the town,
    But a select council belongs to the king.
  5. Anger does nobody good,
    But patience is the father of kindness.
    Anger draws arrows from the quiver,
    But good words draw kola-nuts from the bag.
  6. A fruitful woman is the enemy of the barren,
    And an industrious man is the foe of the lazy.
  7. Beg for help, and you will meet with refusers;
    Ask for alms, and you will meet with misers.
  8. A wild boar in the place of a hog would ravage the town,
    And a slave, made king, would spare nobody.
  9. When there are no elders the town is ruined,
    And when the master dies the house is desolate.
  10. The absence of powder converts a gun into a stick,
    And the death of a father causes the dispersion of his children.
  11. The sharpness of an arrow is not like that of a razor,
    And the wickedness of a horse is not like that of a man.
  12. A pistol has not a bore like a cannon,
    And a poor man has not money like a rich.
  13. Sorrow is after weeping,
    And mortification is after trouble.
  14. To-day is the elder brother of to-morrow,
    And a heavy dew is the elder brother of rain.
  15. A ram’s mane gives him a noble appearance,
    And a father’s honour makes a son proud.
  16. No one can separate the agbali from the arabi,[1]
    And no one can deprive a man of his inheritance,

The Yoruba-speaking peoples are fond of composing punning sentences, made up of words having similar sounds but different meanings. Thus:–

(1) Abebi ni ibe iku.

Abebi ni ibe orun.

Bi oru ba inu abebi ni ibe e.

Abebi means a fan, an advocate, or an intercessor, and the above is

An intercessor (with the gods) wards off death.
An advocate (with the judge) wards off punishment.
A fan wards off the heat when it is hot.

[1. See Proverb 218.]

(2) Igun ti ogun mi ko jo i egun. Stabbing is not like pricking me with a thorn.” The play here is in the resemblance between the words igun, ogun, and egun.

(3) Bi alapata ba pa eran, awon alagbata abu u li ajan. When the butcher kills the animal the retailers cut it into pieces.” Here the play is upon the words alalgata (butcher) and alagbata (pedlar, retailer, petty trader).

(4) The following is on the words bata (shoes), bata-bata (an onomatopœic word like our “patter patter “), apata (rock), ajulabata (chief drummer), and bata (a long drum):–

Ojo pa bata, bata-bata-bata, li ori apata; li ode ajulabata, bata ni igi, bata li awo.

“The rain on the bata (shoes), goes patter, patter, patter, as on the apata (rock); in the street of ajulabata, the bata (drum) is wood, the bata (shoes) are of hide.”

(5) Igba dodo li agbado, igba ni? “What supports the people if it is not maize?” Here the play is on igba dodo and agbado.

It is a favourite game to repeat as fast as possible sentences difficult to pronounce, like the following:–

Iyan mu ire yo; iyan ro ire ru. “When there is famine the cricket is fat” (that is, is considered good enough to eat); “when the famine is over the cricket is lean” (i.e., is rejected).

Kanakana ba kanakana ja, kanakana da kanakana. “The crow met the crow and fought, the crow beat the crow.”

The two following are examples of a play of a different sort:–

(1) The cry of the squirrel sounds like the word korokoro, whence “It was the squirrel’s own mouth that betrayed her, for when she had brought forth two young ones she carried them to the roadside and said, My children are very sound, very sound, very sound (Omo mi ije korokoro, korokoro, korokoro.)

(2) The cry of the bush-fowl (partridge) resembles the words kiki ora, “nothing but fat”; hence the saying, “With its mouth the bush-fowl declares its fatness, crying, ‘Nothing but fat! Nothing but fat.'” (Kiki-ora! Kiki-ora.)


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